Hey, welcome back!
Before I get to the list, I want to point out that I am intentionally excluding Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Since they already have places on the list of my favourite books of any type of all time, I didn’t see a need to relist them here and take two spots away from books that deserved a mention.
Ready? Better be, ’cause we’re goin’!
5. Crisis On Infinite Earths (DC, 1985, 12 issues, writer: Marv Wolfman, artists: George Perez and Dick Giordano)
Oh, here we go.
In 1985, DC Comics was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. (The “DC”, for all you trivia buffs out there, stands for its longest-running and still published title, Detective Comics.) However, after 50 years of history, the DC Universe was a continuity nightmare that would give the X-Men headaches. After all, how do you explain how the same Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman that were active in World War 2 are still running around in the 60s and haven’t gotten any older?
The solution back then was to introduce Earth-Two, a parallel dimension in which the Golden Age (World War 2-era) superheroes lived, and make “our” earth Earth-One, with the current versions of those heroes active. It was a good solution for 1961, but by 1985, there were so many parallel universes and different versions of heroes and conflicting histories that the DC Universe was, once again, a largely unmanageable mess.
Enter Crisis on Infinite Earths.
While the story of Crisis revolves around the war of two beings, the Monitor and Anti-Monitor (real original, guys), who were created in the same experiment that splintered one reality into DC’s Multiverse, the idea behind it was to wipe out all of DC’s current continuity and start all over again, with a single universe. This, they hoped, would revitalize the company, make it more accessible for new readers, and boost sales.
Surprisingly, they were successful on all counts.
In the battle to prevent the Anti-Monitor from destroying all of the Multiverse, however, heroes died by the ton. Supergirl, The Flash (Barry Allen), the Golden Age Robin, Huntress, Green Arrow, and literally hundreds of others were killed by the Anti-Monitor or his “shadow demons” in the course of the books 12 issues.
It’s hard and probably inaccurate to call Crisis thought-provoking, but, then again, it isn’t a mindless carnival of violence either. The sadness at the deaths of heroes is palpable, the regret and loss that the Golden Age Superman feels at realizing that he is once again the sole survivor of his world, the betrayal of the Monitor’s assistant when she murders him. . .there are some very gripping, very emotional moments in this.
But behind it all, leaking from every panel on every page, is the weight of history. . .and that’s why it’s earned its spot on this list.
4. Peter Milligan’s X-Force/X-Statix run (Marvel, 2001-2004, X-Force: issues 116 – 129, X-Statix: 29 issues, writer: Peter Milligan, artists: mostly Mike Allred, various others)
If you’re a mutant in the Marvel Universe, home of the X-Men, your job is pretty much to be hated and feared by everybody else. Seriously, they just never seem to catch a break. No matter how many times the X-Men save the world, there’s always somebody somewhere building more mutant-killing robots or starting a religion-based anti-mutant group or just running around shooting at mutants, like a pack of fucking ingrates. The X-Men, and by association all mutants, are really just the redheaded stepchildren of Marvel Earth.
Unless, of course, you are one of Peter Milligan’s X-Force.
With sales on X-Force, an X-Men spinoff team, flagging, Marvel brought in writer Peter Milligan to reimagine the team. I genuinely believe that they did not know what they were in for.
Instead of being hated and feared, Milligan’s new X-Force, comprised entirely of new characters instead of holdovers from the 80s, were celebrities of the highest order. Their battles were filmed by floating-green-blob-and-cinematographer-extraordinaire Doop and sold on DVD. They did interviews, signed books deals, held press conferences whenever the team roster changed, had drug and alcohol problems, fought each other more than they did other people, worried about their popularity, were merchandised up the wazoo (said wazoo itself also being heavily merchandised), and occasionally went out and fought bad guys – if the battle promised good ratings.
Peter Milligan took yet another book about yet another tired, has-been team of outcast mutants and made it into a scathing commentary on the dual natures of celebrity and hero worship in American society. Mike Allred’s sharp-lined, pop-art style served as the perfect complement to Milligan’s unorthodox writing. However, the unusual context and subject matter of the story in the first issue serve to keep one off-balance just enough that the sucker-punch shock ending knocks you into a reeling tizzy of confusion, WTF-itude, and, most importantly, a metric shitload of anticipation for the next issue.
(By the way, I just realized that Milligan’s X-Force team had no problem with killing the people they fought against, and were loved and adored for it. One member is even criticized for not killing enough people on a mission. Kind of a thematic tie with Kingdom Come, huh?)
3. The Authority (first series) (DC/Wildstorm, 1999-2002, writers: Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Tom Peyer, artists: Bryan Hitch, Frank “my accent is so thick you’d think I’d eaten Scotland” Quitely, Art Adams, Gary Erskine)
A little backstory: in the Wildstorm Universe, there was a world peacekeeping team called Stormwatch. They had a good run, until they ran into Aliens (yes, I do mean the same Aliens that keep bugging Sigourney Weaver, and good luck finding that trade paperback – copyright issues keep it from being reprinted) and got absolutely obliterated. Unbeknownst to the general public, Stormwatch had a secret covert ops team, Stormwatch Black; after the death of Stormwatch, Stormwatch Black team leader Jenny Sparks decided that the world still needed a team to watch out for it, and so took the covert team, found some new members, and became The Authority.
The “modern pantheon” that Warren Ellis created was: Jenny Sparks, electric-powered British woman who embodied the spirit of the 20th century (she was born on January 1, 1900 and died on December 31, 1999); Swift, a winged, taloned Tibetan woman; the Doctor, shaman of the global village of Earth (and, as it turned out, a heroin addict); Apollo, a super-solar-powered Superman-type; Midnighter, a surgically augmented Batman type and Apollo’s boyfriend; the Engineer, whose blood contained nanobots that allowed her to make anything she wanted, very similar to Green Lantern’s ring; and Jack Hawksmoor, who, for lack of a better way to put it, could talk to and control cities (buildings, not people).
Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch gave the book its trademark four-issue story arc format; every arc was like a good summer blockbuster movie: loud, brash, boisterous, and fun. In their books, the first three arcs, the team battled a good old-fashioned supervillain bent on world domination, invaders from another dimension, and ended with a fight against “God,” a gigantic pyramid-shaped alien being that had originally created Earth and was pissed to come back from touring the cosmos to find humans all over it.
Millar and Quitely, no doubt chattering to each other in a damn near indecipherable Scottish brogue, decided to keep that format when they took over with issue 13 but also gave more characterization and exploration of social and political issues: starting with the question “Why don’t superheroes ever fight the real bastards?”, the Authority began tackling military juntas and corrupt dictators when not busy fighting Earth itself or thinly-veiled parodies of Marvel’s Avengers while trying to recover Jenny Quantum, the Asian-born spirit of the 21st century.
The problem with doing right in third-world countries is that you make first-world countries feel threatened, and so the G7 governments united and built a super-powered cyborg named Bubba to take out the Authority and replace them with new versions, fully sanctioned by the world’s ruling elite, and unlikely to go around helping poor people or knocking over puppet governments for no good reason. (After the replacement team is slaughtered by one seriously-pissed Midnighter, and the team is struggling to defeat Bubba, Jenny Quantum turns him off by saying the one phrase that the world’s wealthy and powerful knew no one would ever say: “Welcome to the Oval Office, President Gore.”)
Ellis and Hitch gave us the wide-screen blockbuster comic format; Millar and Quitely gave the team depth, character, and social commentary. Between the two of them, the book had an air of semi-plausibility; you could believe that this is really how the world’s leaders would react to a superteam that effected political and social changes instead of just beating up the supervillain du jour.
The first series ended amidst a flurry of delays, heavy censorship following 9/11, and even more heavy-handed censoring of things like Midnighter and Apollo kissing, which seems quite an ironic end for such a revolutionary series. The Authority continued in several more volumes, but they haven’t been as good since. . .not even when they took over the U.S.
*******WARNING: IF YOU EXPECT TO READ MORE ABOUT ADULTS IN TIGHTS BEATING EACH OTHER UP, STOP RIGHT NOW. THE NEXT TWO ON THE LIST, THE TOP TWO, IN FACT, DO NOT INVOLVE SUPERHEROES AT ALL. CARRY ON. ***************************
2. Four Women (DC/Homage, 2003, 5 issues, writer/artist: Sam Kieth)
Hey, look at that! A nice, simple story with no superheroes, no supervillains, no spandex, and no urgent rush to save the world/universe/Multiverse/Toledo, Ohio (then again, there’s never a rush to save Toledo). Four Women is about (duh) four women, longtime friends, great companions, taking a fun road trip to a wedding together. . .and the terrifying tragedy that befalls them.
Four Women is hard to categorize. It’s not a horror story; there’s no lurking boogeymen jumping out from behind trees or slow-moving misanthropes in hockey masks here. It’s not a story about four hot women having a sleepover at Crystal Lake; this is just four women stuck in a horrible situation, made even more so by the fact that it’s completely plausible. There is no suspension of disbelief required; this could really happen. It’s not just a tragic story; there is more to it than that.
If I had to nail it down, I would have to say that Four Women is about friendship, loyalty, survival, sacrifice, redemption, and guilt. Would you sacrifice yourself to protect your friends? Would you die for your friends? Would you kill for them? Would you betray your closest friends in order to keep yourself safe from harm? If you did, could you still be friends afterward? Would they forgive you? Could you forgive yourself?
In a nutshell, that’s what Four Women is about. It’s more about questions than it is answers.
While I was not a fan of Sam Kieth’s artwork before, I have to admit that it fits this story perfectly. Rather than being body-type clones with different hair and eye colours, the four women – Beverly, Cindy, Marion, and Donna – all show their personalities in their appearances. Bev is self-assertive and confident, as shown in her short hair and strong jaw; Cindy is the wild party child and, as the youngest, has the wild-eyed exuberance of youth; Marion is conservative, but matronly, caring and strong (there’s a panel of her face in the midst of the tragedy that will make your eyes wet, if you are human in any way, shape, or form), and Donna’s cynical and selfish-yet-warm nature is evident from the first time you see her smirking to herself and making a speech to the effect that friendship is stronger than instinct.
As some songs are a perfect match of lyrics to music, Four Women is a rare perfect pairing of writing and art.
Speaking of that perfect pairing. . .
1. 100 Bullets (DC/Vertigo, 1999-2009, 100 issues, writer: Brian Azzarello, artist: Eduardo Risso, cover artist: Dave Johnson)
And at the top of the pile, surrounded by spent bullet casings, is 100 Bullets.
Noir, as a genre, is enjoying something of a Renaissance in comics right now, due in part to Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ excellent Criminal series and Brubaker and Lark/Gaudiano’s (Hi Stephano! That’s my shout-out to Stephano Gaudiano, who is just one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met) awesome Gotham Central series, not to mention Brubaker’s very dark, gritty run on Daredevil, along with Marvel’s Noir series, which reimagines many of their mainstays in a more noir-type universe. (I just realized that approximately three-fourths of the current Renaissance is entirely due to Ed Brubaker. That guy gets around.)
But none of it would have been possible without 100 Bullets.
When I get home from the comic book shop, and I have some time to sit and read my new books, I read in order of what I’m most looking forward to, which usually puts parts of miniseries and good ongoing works at the top of the list. For nine years, though, 100 Bullets was always the book that I read first, in front of everything else, even books starring Batman, which for me is really saying something.
Right. On to the book, then.
100 Bullets began with a thematically-simple-but-morally-complex premise: what would you do if you’d been wronged, and someone gave you an untraceable gun, 100 rounds of untraceable ammunition, and guaranteed that you would not be punished if you used said gun and bullets to get revenge?
What will Dizzy Cordova do, in the first story arc, when the mysterious Agent Graves gives her a briefcase containing the gun, the bullets, and evidence of who really killed her husband and son while she was in prison? What will Lee Dolan, former restaurant owner kicked down the ladder to dive-bar bartender, do to the beautiful woman that Graves tells him framed him for possession of child pornography? Or Cole Burns, ex-convict ice cream man who finds out his grandmother was murdered? Or the mother who finally finds out why her daughter ran away and hears the tragic tale of the child’s life on the streets? What will they, and others, do with Graves’ strange “gift”?
That’s just where 100 Bullets begins.
That’s a good enough premise to be a top-rated drama on prime-time TV, if done right (Eastwood as Graves?). But it gets so, so much deeper than that.
Just the basic question of “what would you do?” is great, but then more questions arise. Who is Agent Graves? How can he do this for people? Does he want them to kill their targets? Or is he just testing people? Where does he get all these guns?
And from there, 100 Bullets blossoms like a steroid-fed orchid. From its not-so-simple root, 100 Bullets goes on to show us the massive, centuries-old conspiracy behind America and who really owns this country. Everyone is connected, everyone is a puppet, and Graves knows who’s pulling the strings. The real question is, which side is he on? Is the also-mysterious Agent Shepherd that follows him around on the same side or working for the opposition? Who is pulling the strings? Is Graves a puppet or the puppet-master? What’s really going on here?
If, as Vincent the Bastard says in issue 50, “America is all about the fuck,” then 100 Bullets is all about the mind-fuck. The plot takes more twists and turns than a roller-coaster designed by ravers, the dialog is full of double meanings, everybody has secrets and shames and absolutely everyone has a role to play in the world’s biggest conspiracy. 100 Bullets is dark, gritty, violent, profane, littered with beautiful women, handsome men, absolute wrecks of humanity, and heaping heavy handfuls of grey shades. It’s an absolutely beautiful work; even the (thankfully) rare filler issues aren’t boring or forced.
Azzarello holds no sacred cows, either: anyone can die at any given time. There’s no guarantee that your favourite characters will make it to the end of the series. Several times while reading it, I actually yelled “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” when one of my favourite characters suddenly bit the dust. He will keep you guessing, right up until the bullet-heavy ending.
As brilliant as Azzarello’s writing is, 100 Bullets would not be nearly as good without Eduardo Risso’s art. Displaying a fondness for odd camera angles (one shot is from the back of a guy’s as he is shot in the face, giving the reader a front-row seat to an exit wound), a great appreciation for the use of negative space, and an amazing ability to make beautiful people seem ugly at times, Risso’s art is just a joy to behold.
You may have noticed above that I also mentioned, for the first time in this list, the cover artist, Dave Johnson. Without Dave’s awesome covers, and he did the covers for every single issue plus all of the trade paperbacks, 100 Bullets would seem to be missing a little something. His inimitable style, perhaps.
100 Bullets: Ugly, beautiful, gritty, crime noir at its best, using the comic book medium in ways it needs to be used more often.
We3, Obergeist: Ragnarok Highway, DC: The New Frontier, Grendel: Black, White And Red, Batman: Black And White, Grendel/Batman, Darwyn Cooke’s run on The Spirit: All of these deserved at least a mention here, and I’m sure I’m forgetting several more, but you know, I only have room for so much in my brain at one time.
Thanks for reading!
VS – 1.25.10
P.S. You may have noticed that many of the titles on this list were published by either Vertigo or Homage, which are imprints owned by DC Comics. While Homage is no longer around, Vertigo is still putting out some of the best adult-oriented comics out there. Aside from Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and 100 Bullets, the Vertigo line is also responsible for We3, John Constantine: Hellblazer, and goth cult favourite Sandman. Vertigo takes the chances and publishes excellent creator-owned stuff with little in the way of censorship, thereby letting creators express themselves as they wish, and I love them to death for it.